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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Life Begins at Conception, According to Draft of HHS Strategic Plan

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On Friday, the Trump administration rolled back the Obamacare birth control mandate, offering an exemption on religious or moral grounds to employers who had been required to include birth control coverage in insurance plans—and that was just the latest sign that the Trump administration is following the standard, discriminatory conservative orthodoxy on women’s health.

In a move that was largely overlooked, earlier this month the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) dropped its draft strategic plan for 2018-2022. Given that HHS is run by people who think women should not have access to birth control, much less abortion care, it certainly is a fucking doozy, and a doozy worth looking at. As Dr. Jen Gunter recently pointed out in her blog on the plan, one of the very first things this document does is define life at conception, right at the beginning of the second paragraph.

Let’s take a gander at what this sentence looked like under the Obama administration:

HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving Americans at every stage of life.

And now:

HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.

Just so we are all clear! This is restated later on in Strategic Goal 3, with an additional nod to the department’s apparent stance on assisted suicide: “A core component of the HHS mission is our dedication to serve all Americans from conception to natural death...”

Though Sec. Tom Price has recently departed HHS in a cloud of private plane exhaust, he has, throughout his career as a public servant, fought vigorously against contraceptive access for women. Among other things, Price sponsored the “Right to Life Act” in 2005, a bill that defined life at conception and would give zygotes (or a “preborn human person”) full legal rights with no exception for rape, incest, or threat to a woman’s life; it would make the morning after pill and IUDs illegal, and, as Slate put it, “would put control over women’s bodies—including, perhaps, what she ate, drank, or did while pregnant—in the hands of the state.”

Price leaves behind a department stocked with like-minded individuals, such as Teresa Manning, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, an anti-abortion activist who once claimed that the “efficacy” of birth control is “very low” and that “family planning is something that occurs between a husband and a wife and God.” Other HHS appointments include Charmaine Yoest, the former president of Americans United for Life, former Republican Rep. John Fleming, another anti-abortion activist, and Valerie Huber, an abstinence education advocate.

Vaccines, at least, are unambiguously supported here—not a given, in this administration—and the opioid crisis is addressed as well, with plans for promoting safer prescribing practices, improved access to overdose medications and strengthened “clinician training on evidence-based practices related to the prevention and treatment of opioid use disorders.”

But have no doubt: “religious liberty” is a big theme in this document; the HHS plans to “reduce burdens on the exercise of religious and moral convictions,” i.e. increase burdens on women who would like to access birth control.

Under “Objective 2.1: Empower people to make informed choices for healthier living,” “faith-based and other community organizations” are highlighted as a conduit for helping Americans “increase control over and improve their health and well-being.” Uh, shouldn’t professional health care providers be the ones tasked with improving one’s “health and well being”? No?

HHS seeks to achieve this objective, in part, by removing barriers to, and promoting, participation in HHS conducted, regulated, and funded programs by persons and organizations with religious beliefs or moral convictions and other community organizations – who have historically been the primary funders and deliverers of health care and human services in the United States.

Say what now?

“This is a license to discriminate,” Susan Berke Fogel, director of reproductive health at the National Health Law Program, told Politico last week. Politico also noted that most references to the health needs of minority and LGBT groups were nixed. “All of that language brings back all of these things that we’ve seen in the past that are just incongruous with really protecting health care and really improving people’s lives.”

The draft also promises to “communicate culturally competent and linguistically appropriate messages, delivered by appropriate messengers, including faith-based and other community organizations,” and, elsewhere, to “support successful youth transitions to adulthood... through evidence-based or evidence-informed healthy marriage and relationship education, including those programs provided by faith-based and community organizations.”

Which I guess means that more of my fellow Americans will get to enjoy the same completely ineffective but successfully shame-inducing abstinence education I received, in which a married 23-year-old named Montika talked about how fun it was to be married and showed my class slides of genitalia infected by various venereal diseases.

The draft strategic plan is open for public comment through October 27.